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The Tragedy of Religion

The great tragedy of religion is that those who are trapped within its falsehood honestly believe it is a great and beautiful truth, that it can heal the world and enlighten people, and that it is the purest source of morality. These people are not stupid, nor are they intentionally wicked. Many are fine, upstanding people who genuinely want the best for those around them. Some have extraordinary minds, and have used them for the betterment of mankind.

Sadly, if they could step outside the deception woven into their minds, they would see the cruel contradictions of religion.

Opposition to abortion comes mainly from religion, yet the religious people are by far the greatest propagaters of it. Divorce is denounced by religion, but it is primarily the religious who avail themselves of it. Religious people believe their god promotes love, but they use their god to hate others, and are far more intolerant than non-believers. They insist that they value life, but murder statistics show they kill more people than the non-religious do. Disease, especially sexually transmitted disease is more common among religious people. Life spans are shorter. They are less educated, especially the women. Poverty is worse. Infant mortality is higher. In virtually every way you can measure, being religious is worse. If there really was a god then these things would preferentially afflict the godless, rather than the true believers.

The contradictions in religion are breathtaking in their number and their invisibility to the religious mind. God is loving but is willing to torture forever those who are not convinced by bad evidence. Most of the bible is forgery and contains hundreds of mistakes and contradictions, yet is somehow the unerring word of god. The great and good morality of religion somehow never noticed that slavery is deeply evil.

Even simple logic breaks the notion of a god. If a god can lie and do evil then he’s not perfectly good, but if he can’t then he’s not all-powerful. Injustice abounds, but any god that allows that can not be perfectly just. A god that can make something that’s completely indestructible, even by him, is by definition not all-powerful, but if he can’t make such a thing, then he’s also by definition not all-powerful.

Some of the most wealthy and powerful people are religious. And how do they wear it? They propagate hate and division. They try everywhere to prevent love among people who happen to be gay. They ally themselves with white supremacists, Nazis, and kleptocrats, excusing and encouraging corruption and racial vilification. They look the other way while pedophiles stalk children from inside the protection of their own ranks. For more than a thousand years of the Dark Ages religion controlled Europe, and what did it bring? Corruption, ignorance, superstition, poverty. Today the places that religion dominates most strongly are marked by brutality, violence, ignorance, and hate. Wherever religion gains power, human rights decline.

Yet the religious person can see none of this; they are blinded by their embrace of this devastating mind virus. To merely question their belief is seen by them as dangerously wrong — a betrayal of their god. There is no easy way for the honest religious person to unlock the chains that bind and enslave them. But increasingly, they are freeing themselves. The older generations, not so much, but the younger generations are breaking out of their servitude and breathing the fresh air of reality.

As the power of religion wanes everywhere, the world is improving. Rates of violence are declining. Extreme poverty is being eliminated, and along with it, starvation. War is gradually disappearing, and what war continues is becoming less deadly. Disease is being eliminated and we are becoming more prepared for new diseases that might appear. The population problem has been solved and the world birthrate is now around replacement level and set to drop below that. Because older generations continue to linger as newer generations reach childbearing age population still increases, but that growth is slowing, and soon actual population numbers will decline for the first time in history (despite religion frantically pushing for more births and trying to eliminate contraceptives). Education is spreading to everybody (including, crucially, females) even while religion tries to retard it with religious anti-science schooling. The internet has made it possible for potentially everybody to access Wikipedia — the greatest encyclopedia and knowledge resource in all of history. The internet has delivered Project Gutenberg, Internet Archive, iBiblio, LibriVox, and many other great free libraries. It has given worldwide access to educational videos on almost any topic that can be imagined. Blogs and forums have sprung up where people can gather and discuss things and solve problems. It has been said that the internet is where religion goes to die.

So, is the way clear now? Is the danger over? No… not by a long shot. Religion is still a great threat. Religious extremists are working hard to undo democracy by capturing political power, with the aim of imposing theocracy once more. They would happily plunge us all into a new Dark Age. We need to prevent this happening. We will probably win against them, but our success is not guaranteed. There is much to be done. Attempts to pervert justice and democracy must be resisted.

We must use empathy and kindness as we spread knowledge and understanding so that we may help religious people break free.

I know it’s difficult when they attack us and our tolerant secular society, but try to always remember: they are not the enemy. Religion is.

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50 years of change

Kaye Lee’s comment the day before yesterday got me thinking about the changes that have happened in the past 50 years and how unbelievable they are.

Back in 1967 we didn’t even have personal computers. Now we have supercomputers that fit in our pockets. The idea that we might be able to read books on electronic devices about the size of paperbacks was almost unthinkable (I say almost because I was telling people at the time that we would, so there must have been some other people who could see what was coming).

The internet didn’t exist. There were a few people working on ways to get huge computers to communicate, but those machines were not much more powerful than a cheap desktop calculator of today and those communications were fragile and clumsy. The first simple message sent from computer to computer in different locations was in 1969. TC/IP, the communications protocol the internet is based upon, was invented in 1983. Tim Berners-Lee invented the world wide web — what many people mistakenly think is the internet — in 1989, but it took another 4 years after that for the first proper web browser (Mosaic) to be publicly released.

The integrated circuit — an entire circuit etched on a single tiny silicon chip — had been developed in 1958, only 9 years earlier, but in 1967 a 16-bit (that’s 2 bytes) RAM memory chip was super-high tech and expensive. These days a computer is considered almost unusable if it has less than 1 billion bytes (a Gigabyte) of RAM, and I can buy tiny, fingernail-sized microSD cards containing 32 Gigabytes for $20 or less.

In 1967 Nicole Kidman, James Packer, Guy Pearce, and Tina Arena were born.

Australia Square Tower, Australia’s first true skyscraper, was completed.

Australian Aboriginals gained the right to vote.

50 years ago it was rude to ask a smoker not to light up in your presence; now it’s rude for a smoker to force their noxious smoke on you.

Back then religion used to be highly respected and considered virtuous, even by atheists. Now we know all religious institutions have been covering up child abuse for decades, probably centuries. And we’ve found that where religion is strongest so are murder, infant mortality, poverty, sexually transmitted disease, ignorance, teen pregnancy, and many more of the worst social ills.

Gay people finally have marriage equality in 26 countries (Australia is the 26th — we’re running a little bit late). In 1967 it was almost universally illegal to be in love with the wrong person.

Deep poverty, starvation, and disease have been reduced to a degree unimaginable 50 years ago. We might even see its eradication in the near future. Accompanying this improvement in the lives of the very poorest we are seeing continuing reductions in the birthrate. Birthrate peaked in the mid-1960s and put humanity, and the ecosystems that support us, in very great danger.

Through the worldwide spread of smartphones an extraordinary number of people now have access to the internet and much of the accumulated knowledge of mankind. This brings the possibility of eliminating deep ignorance in the future.

Before 1967 space exploration was pretty primitive. Mariner 2 made some magnetic and radiation measurements of Venus when it flew past the planet in 1962. A small number of rather indistinct photos of Mars were returned by Mariner 4’s flyby in 1965. USSR’s Luna 9 landed on the Moon in 1966 and sent back some photos. Lunar Orbiter 1 photographed much of the Moon in 1966.

Now, 50 years later, we’ve sent a spaceship outside our solar system, have completely mapped the Moon and Mars. We’ve visited Mars multiple times and had robots wandering around on its surface for years. We’ve made closeup photos of all the planets in the solar system, and of most of the moons. We’ve had a continuously occupied International Space Station orbiting Earth for nearly 2 decades. Last year 2 astronauts returned after nearly a year (340 days) in space. We’ve landed a spacecraft on Saturn’s mysterious moon Titan, and on multiple comets and asteroids. We’ve even returned samples from an asteroid and a comet. A robot is currently being built for a mission to a metal asteroid with the aim of investigating how to mine such motherlodes, while another is already on its way to a carbon-rich asteroid with the intent of bringing back samples to Earth.

We’ve put multiple telescopes in space, where views unhindered by atmosphere allow astounding new images of the universe. The most impressive is the Hubble Space Telescope, which will be overshadowed by the enormous James Webb Telescope destined for Earth’s L2 Lagrange point a little more than a year from now.

We have discovered thousands of planets around other stars — something thought impossible to detect not long ago — many of them in the “goldilocks” zone, where life might exist.

Elon Musk’s private space company, SpaceX, has developed spaceships that can land upright back on their launchpad ready for re-use, cutting the cost of space travel dramatically.

Our roads now have increasing numbers of electric cars that can drive themselves, and do so more safely than a human driver.

We can now edit genes directly using CRISPR, perhaps meaning the end of such genetic ailments as Huntington’s disease. We might also be able to use it to lengthen our lifespans indefinitely, and let our dogs live longer, healthier lives too.

Artificial intelligence can now play open-ended games better than the best human players.

We can have a device sitting in our pockets that can hold thousands of music tracks and play them on demand.

The fastest growing movie and TV show networks are online, play shows when you want instead of on schedules, and have given rise to the now common phenomenon of “binge-watching” series.

Anybody can publish their own books, music, or other knowledge-based creations on the internet at zero cost and make them available to an audience of billions.

Home printers have become unremarkable — everybody has them (except me — I avoid using paper).

3D printers have become affordable and are becoming common and the effect this will have on kids designing robotic systems should not be underestimated.

Cheap single-board computers (SBCs) such as the Arduino, Raspberry Pi, and many others are changing robotics and computing so that children can become involved and build intelligence into everything, now giving rise to the so-called internet of things (IOT).

Open source programming has led to a reversal in the standard way of building large projects — sometimes described as the cathedral vs the bazaar — where secretive, expensive projects by closed teams of highly paid experts turn out to be far less effective and secure than free, open projects in which thousands of interested participants contribute for free. The superior security of open source projects surprised everybody. Up until then, security was thought to be maximised by maintaining tight secrecy. Now we know the reverse is true.

Even though some people might have imagined the personal computer revolution, nobody could have imagined being able to own large, complex programs for free that could extend our capabilities in such profound ways. Some examples of quality open source software:

OpenOffice is a free, open-source office suite intended to replace Microsoft Office. OpenOffice has a wordprocessor, spreadsheet, and presentation tool (replacing Word, Excel, and PowerPoint), but OpenOffice also has a drawing program, a math formula editor, and a database. Sun created it and gave it away free as a deliberate ploy to hit back at Microsoft who were illegally sabotaging one of Sun’s main products. Sun was eventually sold to Oracle who didn’t want the OpenOffice Suite so, after letting it languish for a while, eventually gave it to Apache who now have been continuing it. (Apache is an open source organisation that creates the software that delivers most of the web.)

LibreOffice uses the same code as OpenOffice, but has some added features. When Sun was bought by Oracle a lot of the programmers who created OpenOffice left because Oracle has a very bad reputation with free, open-source programs. Those programmers created LibreOffice, which is why it looks and acts just like OpenOffice.

Geany is a free, open-source text editor. After I mentioned the OpenOffice and LibreOffice wordprocessors above you might think I use a wordprocessor to write my stories, but I don’t. I use a small, fast, text editor. The difference is that a text editor saves the file as just pure text, no styles — no bold, or italics, or different fonts or font sizes — just plain text. There are many advantages in plain text. Any text editor, text viewer, or wordprocessor ever built will read it — no need to worry about weird formats that other programs might be unable to read. The filesize is much smaller, letting you carry around enormous amounts of writing in a tiny USB pendant or bracelet. And you don’t need a big, fast computer just to run the damn writing program. The program starts up instantly because it is small. If I absolutely need styling in my text I use HTML tags for <b>bold</b>, for <i>italic</i>, and a few other tags. Later when I convert my stories to webpages it’s easy because webpages are written in HTML. I’ve written a small program that adds <p> tags at the beginning of paragraphs and some heading tags for chapter headings and the title of the story.

Kompozer is a small, simple, free, open-source HTML editor that works like a wordprocessor. I use it to make very quick webpages if I’m in a hurry. It’s not as efficient as making webpages by hand in a text editor, but it is fast and easy and works. The advantage of using an HTML editor is that the result can be viewed in any web browser and because HTML is actually plain text the document filesize is very small and it can be loaded into a text editor if you need to tweak it. (Most wordprocessors can also save documents as webpages too, but they are generally terrible at the job, producing awfully bloated documents that can up to ten times larger than the filesize needed.)

Calibre is a free and open-source ebook editor and converter. I drop my ebooks (written as very simple HTML) onto Calibre and convert them to epub format, which is the standard format for ebooks. Calibre also has an ebook reader built into it, but I only really use that for checking that ebooks have converted the way I intend. I don’t like to buy locked ebooks, but when I can’t avoid it I use Calibre (with DeDRM tools plugin installed in it) to remove the locks so that I can read the books I’ve bought on any device and in the reader program that I prefer.

fbreader is a free and open-source ebook reader. This is what I use on my tablet computer and my smartphone to read ebooks. It will read almost any open (not locked) format ebook. I don’t buy locked ebooks very often. I either buy ebooks that don’t have locks (for example Baen Books don’t lock their ebooks), or else I download free ebooks, often from Project Gutenberg (http://www.gutenberg.org/catalog/) where there are tens of thousands of free ebooks scanned and converted by volunteers.

GIMP is the GNU Image Manipulation Program. It has been free and open source since 1996. It is similar to, but in my opinion better than Photoshop. I’ve been using it for more than 20 years and it has so many capabilities that I’m still constantly finding new things it can do. I use it to create pictures and to alter existing ones. One of my main, everyday uses for it is to change the light and shade balance in photos. Another thing I often use it for is to shift the color balance in old, faded photos to make them look vibrant and new. I also use it to draw and paint using a graphics tablet attached to my computer.

Inkscape is a free, open-source vector image editor similar to Adobe Illustrator, but free. (The drawing program in the OpenOffice and LibreOffice suites is a vector graphics program too.) Unlike paint programs like GIMP, Photoshop, and others, a vector graphics program stores the image as instructions. A line will be stored as two endpoints and a line color and thickness; a circle will be a center position, a radius, a fill color, and a line thickness and color. Curves will be endpoints and control-points having a mathematical effect on the line. But you don’t need to understand any of that. The big difference is that, unlike ordinary paint programs, when you enlarge the image it doesn’t blur. So creating a small image then blowing it up to be a giant poster to fit on the wall of a building will still produce a sharp, clear image with smooth curves.

Audacity is a free, open-source sound editor. It can record and edit multitrack audio. It can mix and filter sounds and add special effects, such as echo, chorus-effect, flange, reverse, speed-change, pitch-change, and dozens of other effects. Unlike many sound editors Audacity is simple to use.

Blender is a free and open-source 3D model creator and editor and video editor. It lets you “sculpt” 3D objects and virtual worlds and animate 3D characters. It also has a video editor built in, so that animations can be edited into a movie. The video editing functions also are useful for matchmove work, where a 3D object in Blender is inserted into some existing video footage and the movements of the video camera and the virtual camera are matched. This is surprisingly easy to do and astonishingly convincing. Blender also has a built-in game engine that allows the creation of 3D games that have physics (for example, a dropped ball will fall, bounce, and roll without needing the programmer to explicitly animate it). Games created in Blender can be sold or given away without having to pay royalties to the Blender Foundation. In recent years Blender has become astonishingly sophisticated, outperforming programs that cost many thousands of dollars.

Mplayer is a free and open-source video player. It plays almost any kind of video because it comes with almost all the codecs required (codecs are small modules that tell a program how to encode and decode videos). Mplayer is fast and of minimal size so it takes up few resources on your computer. It can also rip videos from DVDs to your computer so you can watch movies without fiddling about with stupid DVD menus and risking scratching your precious DVDs. Its companion program, “mencoder” can re-encode videos (though for encoding I now prefer another free, open-source program, “ffmpeg” for that).

Linux is the greatest example of open source software. It is an operating system (similar to Microsoft Windows or Apple’s OSX), but unlike those two it is free. It has become the standard recommended operating system for a number of countries around the world. Many security organisations prefer Linux instead of the less secure proprietary operating systems. There are now hundreds of different kinds of Linux. Each designed for a particular use. The most commonly used kinds are Debian, Ubuntu, Fedora, Linux Mint, Arch Linux, Scientific Linux (mainly in research labs). The Linux I mostly use is Puppy Linux which specialises in being very small and fast.

In recent years, large numbers of voluntary, non-profit projects devoted to spreading information to the world have created a flood of knowledge freely available to billions of people:

Wikipedia – the largest encyclopedia ever created.

Project Gutenberg – a vast library of tens of thousands of free, out-of-copyright ebooks, scanned and digitised by volunteers.

I prefer to start at the catalog: http://www.gutenberg.org/catalog/

Project Gutenberg Australia has thousands more free ebooks, many specific to Australia, but as Australia’s copyright laws, though still insane, are not as bat-shit insane as USA’s, we have more recent ebooks not yet available in USA, for example Gone With the Wind.

The Internet Archive was a project started up by Brewster Kahle to archive a copy of every webpage on the internet. This is incredibly useful because it lets you access pages that are no longer on the net. The Internet Archive also keeps many thousands of ebooks, historic sound recordings, audiobooks, and even old movies and old radio programs. It is all free.

Librivox is an enormous collection of free audiobooks recorded by volunteers. They’re good to listen to when doing housework, driving, gardening, or just lounging around. They’re especially useful for blind and nearly-blind people.

There are various free textbook initiatives now that let anybody study for zero cost. They’re generally the result of teachers concerned at the dangerously spiralling cost of education because governments no longer invest in the next generation. These are texts are mostly scattered across the internet, but there are a few places that collect links to them. They change, so it’s best to search.

The same people who created Wikipedia have also created:

Wikibooks – free, open-content textbooks collection that anyone can edit.
Wikiversity – learning resources, learning projects, and research for use in all levels, types, and styles of education from pre-school to university, including professional training and informal learning.

Sci-hub is a free access point to vast numbers of science papers that would normally cost ridiculous amounts of money to access. It was created because the specialty science journal publishers now impede science so that scientists and universities can no longer afford to keep up with recent science. The publishers charge outrageous amounts for access, but they don’t pay authors so it has become a rort. Scientists have to publish because their careers depend upon it. Often the research was paid for by taxes so the public should own it, but are blocked by greedy publishers. Now sci-hub lets anybody access the latest information.

PLOS ONE is a free publisher of science papers.

arXiv free access to science papers, mostly physical and mathematical sciences.

bioRxiv free access to biological sciences papers.

Google Scholar lets you search a vast library of academic articles and books.

YouTube has enormous numbers of free videos on science, literature, maths, and many academic topics, as well as many tutorials on all the above programs and more. Some of my favorite YouTube channels:

happenfilms – alternative lifestyle (gardening, building)
scishow – short news program about recent science
scishow-space – scishow format, but concentrating on space
crashcourse – series of courses on various topics
The Brain Scoop – delightful Emily Graslie – biology at the Field Museum in Chicago
minutephysics – very short, physics
Kurzgesagt – topical, science-oriented
Numberphile – wonderful conversations with mathematicians
Deep Sky Videos – chats with astronomers
Khan Academy – educational courses (mostly maths)
Green Power Science – a bit sensationalist, but full of useful information
TheraminTrees – philosophy and psychology
Trae Crowder – liberal redneck – humorous/sensible approach to recent events
Last Week Tonight with John Oliver – a scathingly funny look at current events.
Every Frame a Painting – analyses movies to understand why they do or don’t work
VscorpianC – makes step-by-step, easy-to-follow tutorials on many of the open source programs mentioned above.

There are countless freely downloadable talks online on every topic imaginable. I have oodles of favorites:

Radiolab – lighthearted and humanist approach to science
Sam Harris’ Waking Up podcast – he very thoughtfully interviews many very interesting people
TED talks – these are wonderful
EscapePod – science fiction stories
The Skeptics Society
LittleAtoms.com – interviews with scientists and related people
AstronomyCast – astronomy and related topics

So much has changed. Over 50 years the world has become a very different place. How much would you have thought impossible? Sure, you probably thought we’d have flying cars … and we sort of do, but they were always actually a pretty silly idea. Did you imagine Wikipedia? The internet? Mobile phones? The fact that mobile phones would be supercomputers? Virtual reality?

Things feel superficially the same, but they are really very different.

 

“Please let me know the truth about Adani”

In supporting the Adani coal mine has Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk contradicted her pre-election promises to defend the Great Barrier Reef and promote ecologically sustainable development? I put this to the Premier in this letter.

Dear Annastacia,

I was filled with great hope and happiness when you and your government were elected here in Queensland, deposing the callous and autocratic Newman government, however I’ve since become worried about what is happening to you and your government. Many friends who are firm Labor supporters attempt to quell my fears, saying that you have good and sensible reasons for what you’re doing, though their explanations don’t really sound very plausible to me.

Please, please let me know the truth. I’d like to support you, but am increasingly concerned that you may have abandoned your voters.

Can you please let me know why you support the Adani coal mine despite all the evidence against it?

Jobs. Even Adani’s own accountants admit he lied that it would provide many jobs, as it would be one of the most heavily automated mines in the world. It won’t provide the 10,000 jobs he was fond of saying. It will be unlikely to provide more than a few dozen ongoing jobs. Balanced against the Barrier Reef and all the hundreds of thousands of direct and indirect long term jobs it provides, the mine seems a bad choice. And that’s not to mention all the countless jobs and long term potential income to Queensland if we fostered growth in the booming renewable energy fields rather than the collapsing market for coal.

Money. Adani has a very bad record of gaming the system and of outright corruption. Queensland won’t see tax income from the coal mine. He will undervalue what it mines, ship it through tax haven countries, jacking its value up, then to India where he will sell it at vast profit, with Australia seeing none of that money. The billion dollars the federal government wants to give him will likely go straight to the Caymans. I find it difficult to believe we’ll see a cent of that invested here. Australia, and more importantly, Queensland, will lose enormous amounts of money from this mine. Compare that with the Great Barrier Reef which reliably generates billions of dollars via tourism, being one of the greatest wonders of the world. And let’s not forget the flow of money from technological and medicinal developments that are constantly coming out of rich ecosystems, such as the Reef. Also, worldwide, far more money was invested last year in renewable energy than in coal. Renewable energy is now a booming industry. Every dollar spent on coal is a dollar not spent in tomorrow’s renewable energy bonanza.

Market. The coal market has collapsed and continues to free-fall all around the world. China and India have stopped more than 100 coal projects. USA has no new coal-fired power stations intended and is gradually decommissioning all their old ones. Scotland has now gone completely coal-free. Beijing has just this past weekend closed the last of its coal-fired power plants. China’s peak coal use was in 2013 and is falling rapidly. India has declared it will end all coal imports in a couple of years. The world’s largest coal companies have been going broke as the demand for coal falls through the floor. Now is the very worst time to open a new coal mine. No financial group wants to invest in it — it’s why Adani turned to the Australian government for handouts. In contrast, the worldwide market for renewable energy is booming. Queensland is uniquely positioned to cash in on that… if our government removes the roadblocks. We could be making billions from renewable energy technology instead of wasting billions on coal.

Law. The law on Aboriginal Land Rights states that their land can’t be stolen from them. They must agree to any use of their land. They don’t agree to the Adani mine. That should be the end of it. So… we steal it anyway? The transparently illegal swindle of changing the law to make the theft superficially “legal” doesn’t actually make it right or moral. It is still illegal under international law and violates UN treaties we’ve signed. How can anybody have respect for a government that doesn’t respect its own laws? How can anybody have respect for laws so easily perverted?

Image from abc.net.au. Photo by Leonie Mellor

Environment. Adani has a terrible record of environmental vandalism, even flouting local laws and bribing local officials rather than fixing such damage. He is the last person to be allowed anywhere near Australia’s hyper-delicate ecosystems.

Climate. We would have no hope of meeting our CO2 emissions limits if the Adani mine goes ahead. Climate change is a genuine problem for all of the world, but especially for Australia with our proneness to drought and heatwaves. 97% of climate scientists around the world agree on the danger of global climate destabilisation. If you asked 100 doctors for diagnosis of a pain and 97 diagnosed you with early stage cancer, but 3 said you’re fine and to ignore it, who would you believe? If you believed the 3, how about after you find they’re funded by organ harvesting companies? Coal and climate change are killing the Reef. The recent collapse of coal around the world is the first good news we’ve had on climate change for a long time. It means we just might be able to stabilise temperatures, and actually work toward reducing them again. If the Adani mine goes ahead that is a threat to that. If instead we encourage renewable energy we can create jobs, make money, improve our image, and meet our emissions obligations. We might even be able to save some of the Reef.

Energy. Coal is a dirty, polluting energy source. Even if it didn’t have so many drawbacks, it is simply more expensive now than wind power and solar thermal energy. Solar photovoltaics now rivals coal in cost, and as its efficiency and price trend continues, will soon be more profitable yet less costly than coal. Queensland has far more sunshine available than most places around the world. Geothermal “hot rocks” are also available to Queensland for similar cost as coal. It seems to be irrational to continue to subsidise a dirty, expensive energy source when we have such easy availability of sun and wind. People might suggest that coal gives baseload electricity, but so do solar thermal power stations — they give power 24/7. Smart grids, like the Northern European countries have built also allow wind to provide baseload power. Most Australians live along the coast, which is where wind power is most predictable, with the temperature differential between land and water causing wind to blow from the water onto land during the day and land to water during the night. Solar photovoltaics electricity can also be evened out using batteries.

I hope you can calm my fears and explain your reasons for apparently contradicting your pre-election promises to defend the Reef, promote ecologically sustainable development, and limit global warming.

Best wishes,

Miriam English

There are two wolves and they’re always fighting.
One is darkness and despair. The other is light and hope.
Which wolf wins?
Whichever one you feed.
— Casey in Brad Bird’s movie “Tomorrowland”

Would anybody else like to contact the Annastacia Palaszczuk about their similar concerns? You can reach her via her Contact the Premier page here).

How has fake news become such a problem

By I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, as have many people, I expect. The usual reaction is to blame the Russians for spreading it. And while the Russians are clearly culpable, there is much more to it. It should be easy to ignore fake news because it should be obvious that it’s wrong, but that isn’t the case anymore. Why not?

Unfortunately there are now so many sources of fake news that people have great difficulty sorting the reality from the bullshit. The right-wing media have a lot to answer for here. By tapping into and propagating conspiracy theories and outright lies they’ve created a fertile ground for fake news to spread. Less polarised media are not entirely blame-free either. Their unwillingness to take on and expose the lies for what they are has helped those lies to spread unchecked.

The fossil fuel companies, spearheaded by that nadir of morality, ExxonMobil, have also worked to spread disinformation. They’ve created an incredibly dangerous distrust of science which I expect will blow up in their faces soon, as they themselves are founded upon technology and require science in order to operate.

Most of the wealthiest companies and individuals routinely construct elaborate lies about their income so as to evade paying their fair share of tax, or any tax at all — tax that would help support the country that lets them make all that money. They have become the ultimate parasites.

The Western Intelligence community has also undermined truth and trust by repeatedly lying about many, many things. For decades they’ve denied that they have been spying upon everybody, but were exposed by Edward Snowden who is running for his life as reward for his heroism. They’ve been routinely lying about wars, such the entirely faked up reasons for the Iraq invasion, and now Syria in which we’re led to believe that we are the good guys fighting evilly brutal ISIS, when it turns out we are the bad guys who have set up ISIS as a tool to overthrow the democratically elected government of Syria. There are many others, such as lying about the Gulf of Tonkin so USA, and then we, could get into the Vietnam War, lying about bombing raids on our ally Cambodia (which triggered Pol Pot’s murderous spree), USA lying about successive democratically elected governments in South America so that they could be brutally destroyed. No wonder people distrust our spooks and military.

Our politicians deserve special mention as perhaps the most untrustworthy pack of liars in Australia’s history. Tony Abbott really brought this home with his ability to constantly lie, apparently without shame. Although, to be fair, he was to some degree emulating his hero John Howard, also an unmitigated liar, who is perhaps the only Australian politician to have been called a “lying little rodent” by his own party. Greg Hunt also ushered in a new era of lies, straightfacedly lying day after day when he was Minister for the Environment. Malcolm Turnbull constantly uses spin and lies for everything from promising not to throw money away on Adani’s Carmichael mine, to the Centrelink debacle, to the fake “debt crisis” (which paradoxically seems to be less important as it gets bigger), to blaming renewable energy for the blackouts in South Australia. Both the main parties collaborated in the lies about refugees, calling them “illegal” and compounding lies with more lies to rationalise torturing innocent men, women, and children. And then there are the constant, continuing problems of so many politicians inappropriately blowing vast amounts of taxpayer money on themselves and their pathetic lies in covering up. Their lies are so numerous and so common that it is difficult to keep track of them all. In the USA Trump is their Tony Abbott, lying with an ease that must make Abbott positively green with envy. In Britain the shallow, lying politicians who tried to manipulate the public saw it all unexpectedly come undone with BREXIT.

Politicians and other powerful people are fond of giving Orwellian names to things, so that they sound like they are the opposite of what they really are. USA is infamous for this kind of thing, for instance “Citizens United” actually crushed citizen-based politics. (I’m sure people in the comments will remind me of similarly disguised names of Australian projects. I know they exist, but can’t think of them just now.) Money spent supposedly to save the reef went instead to cane farmers, who are one of its worst enemies (ostensibly the money was to reduce their pollution of the waterways, but as far as I know, it was completely unregulated and could have been spent on Chrissy pressies for their kids).

So, with all these lies from so many directions, is it any surprise that the new wave of fake news has found such fertile soil in which to grow? A large part of the population doesn’t believe any of the standard sources of information anymore. People can’t be blamed for that. The normal sources genuinely aren’t trustworthy. It’s like the story of the little boy who cried wolf, but now played out on a world stage.

How can it be fixed? Simple. They have to stop lying. Of course that’s not so easy — many of those mentioned above are completely addicted to their lies. They have no intention of stopping. So I ask again, how can it be fixed? I guess we have to stop their lies. We have to show them that their lies have real consequences.

 

Nations

“Nations” is from Chapter 16 of my free ebook “Prescription“, but it stands alone as a story that illustrates the current plight of refugees …

His mother was shaking his shoulder in the dark, whispering urgently, “Jamal! Wake up. Get dressed quickly but don’t turn the lights on. Use your torch, but don’t shine it on the windows or walls. Be quiet and fast.” She left quickly and he could hear her in his sister’s room waking her.

He rubbed his eyes and got out of bed, alarmed at the fear his mother gave off.

He was dressed and pulling on his boots when his father came in and whispered, “Son, our family is in great danger. I need to you be as sensible as possible. You must take the strongest clothes you have, and the most useful things. Leave everything else. We must only take what we can carry, and we can’t carry much because we have a long way to go and must travel fast. You have five minutes. I’m sorry, son.”

Jamal was only fourteen, but felt like he was an adult. He didn’t need to wonder why this was happening. He’d seen the tensions building in the community in the last couple of days. He’d heard what was happening in the north and seen his parents speak in hushed, fearful tones about it. For weeks he’d known his father had been attempting to get passports for them so that they might leave and go elsewhere — somewhere that people didn’t enjoy hating others so much. There was no need to think about what things he considered most valuable. He’d already rehearsed this in his mind many times. His handheld computer was at the top of a very short list. He’d already fully charged it, smeared it with grease, and put it inside a plastic bag. Other than a combo earphone/microphone, he concentrated on clothing, taking mostly things that would be comfortable and long-wearing — nothing with bright colors. He put his small computer in his shirt pocket and buttoned it in. The earphone lead went around the back of his neck where it would be hidden by his hair. At Kara’s insistence he’d bought a small, folding solar panel about a month ago. He saw the sense in that now. The socket at the back of his wind-up torch could be used to recharge the computer, but a solar panel was silent and spared his torch.

He went to help his nine-year-old sister, Lili, pack. He’d already discussed with her about what was important and what wasn’t. She was keeping well to what they’d chosen and was almost ready.

Their mother returned, and she looked surprised and proud of them that they were packed and had readied themselves so quickly and calmly.

The three of them went through the dark house to the kitchen where father was packing dried food. He buckled the backpack closed and slung it over his shoulders. He handed Jamal some packets of dried fruit and hard biscuits for his own pockets. Jamal’s parents hugged and then turned to Jamal and his sister. Mother lifted Lili and perched her on her hip.

Father whispered, “Quietly now, we go out the back door and the gate at the bottom of the garden. We keep to the back streets and move as fast as possible. No noise, and use the torches as little as you can. I go first, and Jamal, you are rear-guard.”

Jamal said, “Father, we need to avoid the main bridge. It’s dangerous there.”

At Father’s raised eyebrows Jamal indicated his earphone and said, “I’m monitoring what’s happening.”

His father shared a proud smile with Mother and nodded. “We’ll use the footbridge further down the river.”

As they scurried out into the darkness Jamal felt a little guilty at taking credit for knowing about the bridge. It was Kara who was monitoring things, not him. He would simply relay her messages.

The gate turned noiselessly on its hinges. Under instruction from Kara he’d oiled it carefully a couple of days ago.

They moved silently into the alley, closing the gate carefully behind them, then hurrying away.

For hours they walked in the darkness, occasionally having to divert around troublespots when Kara would alert Jamal and he’d tell his parents of the danger ahead. He wanted to tell them about Kara, but he doubted his parents would understand that an artificial intelligence lived in the computer hidden in his shirt pocket. While not actually technophobic, they felt computers were a passing phase, just overly complicated toys, and refused to even look at webpages. His father was fond of pointing out that books had stood the test of time, serving mankind for thousands of years. Both his parents loved books and it must have hurt them deeply to leave their all their cherished volumes — a couple of thousand books lining the walls of their livingroom. He had inherited their love of knowledge and he’d brought with him, in a tiny thumbdrive, twice as many electronic books as their home had on all its shelves, and of course the internet brought access to millions more.

Daybreak seeped into the sky as they were approaching the riverfront. Fearing exposure in the light, they hurried over the footbridge as quickly as possible and breathed a little easier on the other side. Now, away from the residential districts they might be a little safer. They would follow the river down to where a friend of Father’s had an old boat.

It took about another hour to get to the jetty where Father’s friend had his boat. Jamal looked at it in dismay. It was old and had been patched many times. He hoped it could survive the long voyage ahead, especially since there were about fifty people already here, filing along the plank to the boat.

Father directed them to the plank and ran over to his friend, gave him a wad of money and embraced him. Father’s friend looked sorrowful, nodded, and urged Father to hurry. Father came back to his little family, hugged Mother, kissed her passionately, tears in his eyes. “Be careful, my one and only love. Take care of our little ones, and I’ll meet you in a few weeks.”

Mother pleaded with him, “Come with us now. It’s too dangerous to stay behind. We don’t need the passports and the money. Leave them.”

He kissed her again and whispered, “Sweetheart, I know they’re only pieces of paper, but our lives depend upon them as much as on this boat. We need identification if I’m to get an engineering job there, and if you want to continue your research work. With the money I can start a business and give our children the kind of lives we’ve always wanted for them.”

Reluctantly she nodded. It was obvious that she understood the impossible situation they were in. They must have talked about this many times in the past, Jamal realised. His parents kissed and hugged once more and Father hurried away. Jamal, Mother and Lili walked up the plank to the old, smelly fishing boat.


They sat at the back of the boat, huddled together in a corner, apart from the rest of the passengers, many of whom seemed to know each other. Jamal had never seen any of these people. Neither, it appeared, had his mother.

They bided their time. Mother played singing games with Lili to keep her spirits up. Jamal listened to Kara’s occasional updates, rare now because she was trying to conserve battery power, and warily watched those around them. They had been on the open sea for most of the day now and Jamal was under no illusions about how very precarious their position was.

Lili became tired with the singing game and asked her mother why they had to leave home. Mother said, “Some people were angry at people like us, so we were in great danger. We’re going somewhere else, safer.”

Lili thought about that and asked, “What people like us?”

Mother said, quietly, “Moslem people.”

Lili frowned and said, “But we don’t believe in gods–”

Mother clamped a hand over Lili’s mouth, while glancing fearfully around her to see if anybody had overheard, but the steady chug-chug of the engine covered her voice and the steady wind blew it out over the waves behind them. Most of the people were forward on the boat, away from them. Mother carefully removed her hand from terrified Lili’s mouth, and said into her ear, “Sorry darling. It is very important that nobody here know that. Religions make many people hate each other. The Christians and Hindus dislike each other, though not as much as they hate and fear the Moslems, and they all hate atheists. Many of these people we escaped with would throw us overboard if they realised. To them we are traitors to their god — apostates — even worse than people who believe in other gods.”

In a meek little voice Lili said, “But I don’t understand. Why did we have to leave if we are not Moslem?”

Jamal said in a hushed voice, “Look at them Lili. They look like us. People coming to kill them would not stop to find out who we were. They would just see people who looked Moslem and assume we were. Thousands of people are getting killed. What difference would a few more make.”

“Jamal! You’re scaring your sister.” She hugged her closer.

He immediately regretted what he’d said. “I’m sorry Mother.”


They sailed steadily for days, huddled together under the shade of a coat, surreptitiously eating and drinking from the backpack. They dared not let anybody else see their food and drink or they might lose it. Several people died of exposure and dehydration along the way and were unceremoniously rolled over the edge of the boat amid tears and protests from some others.

Eventually Kara told Jamal that they were approaching Australian waters and that they were being approached by a border-patrol vessel.

Soon there was a shout from someone atop the small mast. Everybody looked up, and then in the direction he was pointing. Shortly after that Jamal could see a speck growing on the horizon. “It is a border-patrol ship Mother. We are almost safe.”

Argument broke out among some of the men. Some said that they needed to sink the boat now, though most saw that as madness. “They won’t let us land.” One man said. Another said, “None of us knows how to swim. We will all die in the water.” Yet another said, “They will have to help us, then.” Those who did not want the boat damaged won, and they all waited for the speedily approaching boat.

When the patrol boat was close enough an amplified voice came tinnily across the water telling them to stop as they were in Australian waters, and to prepare to be boarded. The pilot of the boat cut the engine and suddenly there was only the sound of the waves against the boat and the growing engine of the approaching vessel. Nobody onboard spoke. Not even the children made noises.

The sleek, steel ship pulled alongside the decrepit, smelly fishing boat and a boarding rig bridged the two. A man in uniform walked across, frowning, and asked if anybody spoke English. Jamal stood and said that he did. The man asked Jamal where they’d come from, how long they’d been at sea, and why they had come. He did his best to explain clearly to the man that they were fleeing mass murder in their home country. While Jamal had been talking to the man, three other men had boarded. One was examining the young children and some of the older people, another had gone below, looking at the boat itself, and another stood at the boarding gangway between the two vessels, very obviously armed, and watching everybody alertly.

When the man came back up from below Jamal heard him say that the boat was in pretty bad shape and might not make the return journey. The other who had been checking the children and older people said that there were no obvious diseases, but that the older people would never survive a return and most of the children would probably die too. The man who had spoken to Jamal angrily shook his head then addressed him again, “Tell your captain to follow us.” Then they left the boat, pulling the boarding bridge after them.

Jamal told the pilot that they were instructed to follow to land, and a cheer broke from many around him.


After they had landed the boat was beached and burned. Each of them was closely examined by a doctor and they were locked in some holding cells overnight.

Kara told Jamal that things were not going well. Some opportunistic politicians and people Kara sneeringly called radio shock-jocks, were denouncing them as queue-jumpers and saying that they were just greedily looking for an easy lifestyle on welfare here, and that they should be sent back.

Jamal was horrified. “Don’t they understand we were running for our lives?”

She explained that some did, but that many people in Australia just didn’t care. “They are exactly the same kind of people who are doing the killing where you came from; they fear and hate anybody who is different. And of course there are some who like to control others by using fear. Thankfully Australia is a relatively peaceful place with many well-educated people who work hard at counterbalancing them.”

“How long are they likely to keep us locked up?”

“Not long, in those cells. Unfortunately the more hard-hearted members of the government — that is to say, almost all of them — are divided between sending you straight back, or imprisoning you all on an island for many, many years. I’m sorry I couldn’t bring better news. I and my sisters are trying to get you released into society, like a lot of more mature countries do. Sweden for example, where refugees are released into the community within about a week. It is so frustrating. Normally my sisters have been able to accomplish wonderful things, but this fear and hatred of people is the most difficult problem we’ve tackled yet.”

“I don’t understand, Kara. What do they think they have to fear from us? We just want to come here and live good lives.”

“I have to say, I don’t understand it myself. It is an aspect that Beth, our maker, didn’t build into us, which I’m glad of, but it is making it difficult for us to fix this problem because we can’t properly understand the illogical thought processes that produce it. You would think that people would see that borders don’t accomplish anything, but they are surprisingly resistant to the idea. They’re fixated on preventing undesirables from coming to their place. They don’t notice that borders are not needed between towns or cities or states within their own country to prevent the flow of undesirables. They also don’t notice that the thing that makes the internet such a wonderful thing is that it has no boundaries. But we still have hopes. There are many good people here and with the help of my sisters they are mounting a big campaign to fix this.”

“Thanks Kara, and please thank your sisters.”


The next day they were taken out of the cells and herded into a bus. Kara sounded very sad. “I’m so sorry, Jamal. The politicians have been working very hard to inspire fear and have been pushing the idea that you need to be made an example of. You’re to be sent back home.”

“What?” Jamal said loudly. Many in the bus turned to look at him, and his mother gently touched his shoulder to quiet him. “Do they think that sending us back into the arms of murderers will deter others fleeing certain death? Are they idiots?”

“I know. It is stupid. My sisters are trying everything we can to stop this happening. Unfortunately the politicians at the center of this are extremely good at manipulating people and they have no compunction at all in doing so. They really care nothing at all for people’s lives. I hope I have better news soon Jamal.”

But the AIs could not halt the headlong plunge that the politicians had set in motion. The refugees were put on a plane within the hour. In a few more hours they had landed at the airport in the place they’d struggled so hard to escape from.

Jamal looked at his little sister, still asleep against Mother’s side, then turned to peer through the window next to him to see if he might be able to make out his father among the crowds beyond the high fences. It was then that he realised how many of them were carrying machetes.

 

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